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Conference season: Labour set the agenda, Tories could do better, UKIP continue to ride high

In the final part of our series on UK party conference season, we hear what Labour and the Tories each need to do, and that UKIP didn't have the disaster the media would have us believe.

Damian Hockney Joe Cox Will Emkes
1 November 2013
Ed_Miliband_on_August_27,_2010.jpg

Ed Miliband/wikimedia

Joe Cox: Can the Labour party build a progressive common sense?

Having had a few weeks to reflect on the Labour Party Conference and its aftermath it seems to me that a few notable things have changed. The major being that the Labour Party has now moved on to a terrain of soft left populism which should allow it to win the next general election, or at least head up a coalition.

This new soft left populism, sadly, involves accepting most of the accepted norms of this current conjuncture, the most damaging being the need for fiscal austerity and tangentially related need to be ‘tough on benefits’ - though this is of course more about a misplaced appeal to reciprocity than money saving.

Added into this mix are the more encouraging policies such as freezing energy prices for two years, a serious project of house building, clamping down on high cost lending and a conversation about stagnating/low wages and the cost of living (although this conversation also has its dangers).

How positive someone like myself (someone that wants to build a more equal, democratic and sustainable world) feels about the Labour Party right now seems to hinge on one vital question. Does this soft left populism pave the way to forming a new ‘progressive common sense’ in which a serious dent is made in neoliberal orthodoxy – where it becomes normal to talk about limits to markets, the importance of a living wage, the unacceptable behaviour of big corporates and even the re-nationalisation of natural monopolies such as railways? Or would a Labour government in 2015 simply degenerate into a shrill populism and continued heavy cuts to public services?

Related to this is the very important question of what the Labour Party’s role is nowadays. Ed Miliband announced at conference that he wants the Labour Party want to be a mass party again, for a whole host of reasons I cannot see this being possible. The Labour Party would be better off recognising its role as being a large part of a broader progressive movement with other left parties, trade unionists and grassroots campaigners. The culture of the party however, currently prevents this eventuality. At present the Labour Party seems more comfortable with painting itself as a sensible and populist alternative to the ‘out of touch’ Tories and the naive and overly radical opponents to the left of them. This has to change if we are to create a new ‘progressive common sense’.

Whatever cautious optimism one currently holds about the state of the Labour Party since its conference has to be somewhat dimmed by the single minded, ambitious and radical nature of the Conservative project as seen during their conference. The Tories are ideologically clear and have a superb story to tell about the state of the nation. The Labour Party simply doesn’t have an equivalent story that is as clear or compelling and if it wants to change Britain fundamentally (not just limp over the line) it will to craft one in the next year or so.

Joe is from Compass

 

Will Emkes: Tories need to reinvigorate the best of conservative policy

A month ago, Ed Miliband promised to freeze energy prices if elected in 2015. Despite the initial polling, his policy is rapturously popular. Since then, the beyond-belief price rises by three of the Big Six companies have worked to further compound the Tories problems. The latest YouGov polling puts the Labour lead at eight points, suggesting that Miliband’s policy has, in some sense, hit upon the public mood.

On the basis of “retail offers” to the electorate, the Conservatives appear to be struggling. Tax-breaks for married couples, tougher sentencing and fuel duty rises postponed until at least 2015 versus an impressive 200,000 new homes each year, energy bills locked for two years and free childcare paid for by a raid on bankers bonuses is no realistic match. However, Labour will always promise more and deliver less, regardless of economic constraints – fortunately, the electorate know this.

Whether the price freeze would or would not work is now a peripheral issue and I highly doubt whether its ultimate feasibility even mattered to Miliband before announcing it. The Labour party has now moved the national discourse away from economic credibility towards the overall profit of an apparent recovery. As such, much attention has been given to “cost-of-living” issues over the last few weeks with the UK’s energy market now serving as proxy for a larger debate regarding the state’s intervention in markets and the technicalities of delivering more for the many – an area where the Tories, not Labour, lack credibility.

Even if popular in themselves, policies such as a freeze on gas and electricity bills may not help Miliband overcome the wider doubts about his leadership. To some extent, the British have developed a suspicion of free markets, however, they have not acquired the crucial ancillary faith in government’s ability to intervene positively. The Tories answer should not be to make concessions to this agenda but to reinvigorate the best of conservative policy.

The best way to reduce energy prices will not be a freeze on prices, a windfall tax, or break with commitments to renewable and energy efficiency measures, which simply ensure that the monopoly of Big Six providers remains unchallenged. Instead, break the dominance of large energy companies, force them to compete and maximize market entry to smaller providers. Further still, reduce the inevitable headache of switching providers that has already worked in the high-street banks. The wider applications of this debate on state intervention will involve reforming competition laws, a subject that still needs to be talked about much more, and the plurality of market competitors. This is why StartUp Britain, the entrepreneur relief, and the various tax incentives for early-stage investment in small businesses have been the most genuinely compelling, forward-looking policies from Cameron’s government as they work to encourage a different vision for the economy, in tune with the public's discontent with corporatism.

This is how the Conservatives should be responding to Miliband’s proposal and the wider debate about the state’s ability to ensure that the profit of economic growth reaches the many. Miliband has shown the sentiment without the means to achieve it and the Conservatives have the means but have yet to win the sentiment.

Herein lies the challenge for 2015. Whilst Labour has to prove economic credibility, the Tories still need to prove compassion. If the 2015 campaign falls prey to the temptation of portraying Miliband’s latest tack as business-bashing policies that will ruin the economic recovery if set in motion it will be at the expense of genuinely compelling conservatism that has answers to the problem that Miliband has shown exists with ferocity among public opinion. This would inevitably result in no single party winning an overall majority as the electorate would remain undecided on whom to back. Worse still, simply gambling on an unconvincing Labour opposition would represent yet another compromise on a conservatism that can speak to the many in 2015 and beyond.

Will is from Bright Blue

Damian Hockney: UKIP had most to lose, and lost little.

UKIP had probably the most to lose from this year’s conference season and the frenzied coverage and attacks by newspapers, particularly Tory-supporting ones, was balanced by a barely altered before and after poll rating for the party - it demonstrates the degree to which the conference season has had negligible impact on public opinion. Good for UKIP, of course, but posing a question mark over how relevant these conferences are to voters. The staged nature of the conferences of the main parties appears to link with the carefully choreographed written-in-advance partisan attacks in newspapers. It ends up as a dull draw.

 

UKIP’S position was unusual in that its year since the last conference has radically transformed the public’s perception of it: regular polling is now over 10%, placing it almost always third and above the LibDems, where a year ago it was almost always in fourth place. By-election campaigns, beginning with Rotherham shortly after the 2012 conference season, gave it unprecedented second places.

 

The party conference of an organisation like UKIP – less stage managed, more open to “gaffe” coverage, with more potential for dissent and aggro – leaves the party open to sustained and sophisticated attacks by powerful press supporters of the main parties. Now that UKIP has worked its way into a position of recognition and a solid support base, the conference season is the ideal time to attack the party. Relatively minor events can be spun, and in the past these have led to bad publicity which caused setbacks both in public support and in internal cohesion – misunderstanding the agendas behind some (but not all) bad media often led to infighting.

 

Although the coverage of Godfrey Bloom’s ‘sluts’ comment/’joke’ (to an audience of women members of UKIP who did think it was funny) was distorted, it was nonetheless a crass and unfortunate gaffe and a gift for the press. Party Leader Nigel Farage himself said that the good of the conference had been “destroyed” by it – strong words from someone usually not as definite about something like this. He was almost right, and probably also right to say what he did.

 

And yet the furore had no impact upon polling for UKIP at all – a week or two afterwards, UKIP won a ward by-election in Suffolk against all expectations and its like-for-like polling remains solid and ahead of the LibDems on about 10-13%. Look at recent daily yougov polling on gender voting intention splits and bizarrely the ‘best’ UKIP male/female split (ie in favour of the numbers of women declaring for UKIP) was around the time just after the remarks were aired.

 

For UKIP and supporters, ‘no change’ has to be a relief and an affirmation to them at least that the Conference really demonstrated what they felt they knew –that the party had come of age shortly before its 21st birthday. And the fact that voters are switching off ever more from the ‘main’ parties’ canned messages can only benefit UKIP, and indeed the Greens and Respect.

 

Damian is a former London Assembly Member for UKIP and One London.

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